Egypt's main opposition coalition said Tuesday it will boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, a decision likely to push the country into a new round of political turmoil and worsen an already troubled economy.
The announcement by the liberal, secular National Salvation Front was made in a televised news conference just hours ahead of the start of a "national dialogue" convened by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to produce recommendations on ensuring the "transparency" and "integrity" of the vote. The NSF said it was also boycotting the dialogue.
The decision to boycott the election, due to begin in April, is a bid by the opposition to undermine the legitimacy of the rule of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist Islamist group he hails from.
Opponents accuse the Brotherhood of monopolizing power, and the country has been embroiled in months of protests amid public anger that the Brotherhood has failed to resolve the nation's woes or meet the hopes of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime in 2011.
But the opposition also runs a risk. It presented a united front in its decision, but some factions may break ranks to run candidates. There is also no guarantee that the public will rally behind its call to stay away from the polls - making turnout a key measure of support for the opposition and discontent with the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood won around 50 percent of the lower house of parliament's seats in elections in the winter of 2011-2012 that were contested by all sides. Other Islamists won another quarter of the seats, leaving liberal and secular lawmakers only a small portion. The chamber was later dissolved by court order.
The United States, Egypt's longtime economic and military benefactor, reacted swiftly, pressing the opposition to reverse its boycott decision.
State Department Spokesman Edgar Vasquez said it is "critical" for Egyptian parties to take part so that Egyptians can select representatives from a broad range of political positions. He said the U.S. encourages all Egyptian parties and potential candidates to compete.
President Barack Obama spoke by phone Tuesday with Morsi, emphasizing the Egyptian leader's "responsibility to protect the democratic principles that the Egyptian people fought so hard to secure" and urging him and all political groups to find consensus, the White House said.
Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit Cairo over the weekend.
The NSF represents a variety of political groups mostly of liberal, leftist and secular leanings and is primarily anti-Islamist. But it has little control over the young protesters who are taking to the streets virtually every day in several parts of the country, blocking roads and rail lines, besieging government offices and battling security forces.
Still, a boycott of the election by the NSF will fuel their protest movement, which is partly political but mostly about livelihood issues like rising prices, jobs or shortages of basic goods.
Continuing protests and an enduring political impasse could take Egypt to the brink of bankruptcy. Foreign reserves are down by two thirds since Mubarak's ouster, the key tourism sector is in deep recession and investment is drying up.
In Port Said, a key economic hub on the Mediterranean, a sit-in protest by residents in the city center continued for the 10th day Tuesday, but a general strike has dissipated, with workers returning to their jobs at a major industrial complex. Schools and teachers remain on strike.
In the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, hundreds of protesters taking part in a sit-in outside the provincial government offices clashed with police for the third day in a row. The anti-government protesters there have tried to organize a general strike similar to that of Port Said, but succeeded for just one day before clashes with police and Morsi supporters broke out.
In Cairo, protesters clashed with security forces at the city's iconic Tahrir Square after police tried to evict them.
Egypt's latest political crisis is the worst since Mubarak's ouster. It began Jan. 25 when hundreds of thousands marked the second anniversary of the start of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak. Around 70 have died in clashes since, and hundreds have been wounded.
The National Dialogue has been Morsi's answer to critics who accuse him of not listening to voices outside the Brotherhood. But almost all opposition parties, rights activists and pro-democracy youth groups behind the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising have refused his calls to join past sessions, saying the gatherings are just for show.
Tuesday's session was no different, with the roughly 20 participants mainly fellow Islamists.
"God willing, the elections will reflect the spirit of Egyptians," Morsi said in opening remarks at the start of the dialogue, held at the presidential palace in a Cairo suburb and carried live on state TV.
Ziad el-Oleimi, a former lawmaker and an icon of the 2011 uprising, said the boycott of the election could succeed in stripping Morsi's administration of its legitimacy. But he warned that it must also provide an alternative path for the revolution to achieve its goals.
He recalled the last parliamentary election held while Mubarak in power in late 2010, by far the most fraudulent in the ousted leader's 29 years in power. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party won all but a handful of seats in that election.
"This is how it was in 2010, and the (Mubarak) regime didn't last for more than three months after," he said, alluding to Mubarak's ouster in February 2011. "A dialogue has no meaning, because we are not part in the decision-making. Let the ruler take the decisions alone."
Khaled Abdel-Hamid, another icon of the uprising whose Popular Alliance party is boycotting the vote, said the opposition should push the campaign of civil disobedience, including not paying taxes or utility bills, in addition to the boycott.
"The aim now is to bring down this regime," he said.
Abdel-Rahman Youssef, a poet, TV presenter and leading protester in the 2011 uprising, stayed away from Tuesday's dialogue but said he intended to run in the election as an independent. He renounced the boycott decision, saying it was made by "senior citizens" and that it reinforced the notion that part of the crisis in Egypt is one of a generational conflict.
"How can the young learn about politics if they boycott everything?" he said, saying that it is time for the secular and liberal crowd to take on the Brotherhood which is losing popularity and is in a dispute with some of the Salafis.
"The boycott is a step backward, and running away from a battle we have to enter," he said.